Amazon's holiday gift to you: Extended returns signal start of shopping season

Here's everything to know about Amazon's extended holiday return policy, so you can shop early with peace of mind.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
Amazon packages
Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Although I've yet to hear the first Jingle Bells muzak in my local hardware store, we've entered the 2023 holiday buying season. One way to tell is that Amazon annually increases its return period from its normal 30-day policy.

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For many products, returns are now due back by January 31, 2024. Today, that's almost 90 days, but the return window will shrink by the day as we approach the end of the year. Amazon uses this extended return period to help encourage shoppers to buy by minimizing any purchase risk, and allowing for gift returns after the holidays are over.

Amazon's standard return policy (active from January through October) is 30 days. On its Returns Process page, the company states, "You may return most new, unopened items sold and fulfilled by Amazon within 30 days of delivery for a full refund." The company also allows replacement and exchange orders for damaged goods where customers simply want a working version of whatever they originally ordered.

One of the reasons that Amazon was able to grow from Jeff Bezos' garage on Northeast 28th Street in Bellevue, Washington to a company that brought in half a trillion dollars in 2022 is that the company has relentlessly focused on reducing the friction involved in the buying process.

In other words, Amazon makes it easy to buy stuff.

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Part of making it easy to buy stuff is to reduce the risk of a purchase. Since buyers can't see and touch the items Amazon sells, there's always some question about what, exactly, you'll get when you place an order. By providing easy returns, customers know that if their purchase doesn't meet their needs, they can box it back up and send it back.

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

In fact, as an article in Supply & Demand Chain Executive, speaking to its audience of e-commerce operators, declares, "Your product return policy can determine global e-commerce success." Reducing the shopping risk with easy returns definitely helps convince consumers to buy, but it has also created a huge challenge in terms of managing returns. Analyst firm Insider Intelligence believes global returns will exceed $620 billion this year.

But it's not just about accepting products back and issuing refunds. It's also the fact that most returns don't cost the customer to ship them back. The retailer eats all of those costs.

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And it works. We have Amazon Prime and my wife will rarely shop from any vendor where she can't get free shipping (and, by extension, free shipping back on returns). I've seen her spend a few bucks more on Amazon rather than eat a shipping fee from another vendor. Usually, it works out in her favor, because the lower-cost item plus the shipping fee is often more expensive than just the item from Amazon.

Thirty days is generally a fair return policy. It gives enough time to try something out and then box it up to return. But 90 days provides a greater degree of comfort for consumers.

Amazon allows gift returns, simply by providing the order number. So customers can buy holiday gifts now, gift them at holiday time, and know that their intended recipients will still have a full month after New Year's to decide whether to keep or return an item.

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Of course, all of this does add to Amazon's holiday logistics stress, but it's not like the company doesn't mint Bezos Bucks all through the holiday season. And while it might increase some risk that consumers will buy, use, and return goods with a 90-day window, it also spreads out the returns process, potentially providing some level of logistics relief to Amazon and its warehouses.

An ode to unfettered holiday consumerism

'Twas the season of gifting, when all through the land, 
Amazon announced a policy, quite grand.
Return dates extended, till January's last,
A 90-day window, shrinking fast.

From Bezos' garage, to a titan it grew,
Half a trillion in sales, in twenty-two.
Easy buying, less risk, the strategy was clear,
Happy returns, no cost, nothing to fear.

The standard was thirty, a fair stretch indeed,
To judge, to return, if there was a need.
But ninety brings comfort, it spreads joy and cheer,
For gifts can be swapped, well into the new year.

So buy now, and worry not of the fit,
Amazon's policy ensures, it can be swapped a bit.
A return with ease, a refund, no fuss,
In Amazon we trust, they've earned it from us.

For e-commerce success, returns are key,
Market researchers nod and agree.
So this holiday season, let your shopping cart fill,
For returns are easy, and likely always will.

(with apologies to Amazon, Clement Clarke Moore, and my incredibly tolerant editors)

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